The women of northern Kenya regularly weave and bead jewelry. This bead work plays an essential part in the ornamentation of their body. Although there are variations in the meaning of the color of the beads, generally white signifies peace, blue signifies water, green the grass upon which their livestock depend, and red; blood, warriors and bravery.
Beadworking has a long history in the region. It is done almost exclusively by women, who articulate their identity and position in society through body ornaments and body painting. Before contact with Europeans, the beads were produced mostly from local raw materials. White beads were made from clay, shells, ivory, or bone. Black and blue beads were made from iron, charcoal, seeds, clay, or horn. Red beads came from seeds, woods, gourds, bone, ivory, copper, or brass.
The first trade beads arrived from India and the Middle East in around 200 to 300 AD when they were used by merchants in exchange for gold, ivory and even slaves. In the last 19th century, great quantities of brightly colored glass beads were brought to East Africa by traders from Europe.
Many of these glass bead were carried across by merchants from Italy, which was the main producer of glass until the mid 16th century when a major glass industry was founded, centered around the city of Jablonec in Bohemia, (the current Czech Republic). The glass industry boom here was due to three main factors. First, the nearby mountains contained quartz deposits that were easily mined. Second, Bohemia had cheap skilled labor. Third, and most important, the forests provided a supply of wood to heat the large furnaces required to melt glass. The wood burnt in the furnaces also provided an abundance of potash, an important and expensive ingredient in glass making.
The industry grew from individual cottage crafters who made beads for the larger factories. It takes between 15,000 and 40,000 pounds of wood to create the potash to make 50 pounds of Czech glass. These ART factories became famous for making exquisite cut glass for chandeliers and tableware and it was only as a byproduct that they began to make glass beads to sell to the merchants.
The industrialization of bead production catapulted the Czechs into becoming world leaders in the field – creating an industry resilient enough to survive through two world wars, the Great Depression and Communist rule. Visiting the North of the Czech Republic today, it is still possible to see local cottages, each with their own furnaces.
For two hundred years the women of Samburu, Turkana, Maasai, Rendille and Borana have used Czech beads to create some of the most intricate and beautiful beadwork in Africa.
Maasai warriors wearing red and women wearing beads have come to be seen as symbols of “traditional” Africa. These colourful glass beads and red blankets play an important role in Maasai culture.
For thousands of European tourists who travel to East Africa, a visit would be incomplete without buying beads and blankets. What few know is the intricate cultural interconnection between Africa and Europe that resulted in these “traditions”.
Glass beads actually come from Europe. To this day, they are imported from the Czech Republic. The red blankets originally came from Scotland. Glass beads first arrived in Africa from the first millennium AD through the trans-Saharan and coastal trade. Because they were produced in India they were very expensive and only used by royalty.
From 1480 onwards, the mass export of beads from Europe to East Africa started from Venice and Murano in Italy, Bohemia and the Netherlands. By the late 19th century huge quantities of beads were being used as trade goods. Although beads were readily available, the Maasai did not develop an interest in them for quite some time. The Iltalala age-set, who were warriors from 1881 until 1905, were the first to use larger numbers of beads to decorate themselves. An age-set is an institutionalised stage in life which is shared by people that are in the same age-category.
Maasai age-sets are determined by the circumcision-ceremonies of boys, which initiate them into warriorhood. The time of circumcision defines who belongs to a certain age-set. The age-sets have names and their members used to paint their bodies and shields to distinguish themselves. When the colonialists prohibited warriors from wearing their weapons in public, the Maasai instead began to wear beaded ART ornaments which made a public statement about the wearer. The Iltalala age-set, who were warriors from 1881 until 1905, were the first to use larger numbers of beads to decorate themselves. Beadwork fashions come and go Beadwork can tell you several things about the wearer. Specific ornaments and colours indicate whether the person is Maasai or from another ethnic group.
Different Maasai clans also use certain beads and colour combinations to indicate their affiliation. Finally, a person’s beadwork reflects his or her position in life. The belt of a young woman is different from the belt of a young man, and an unmarried girl’s earrings are different from those of a married woman. Within those cultural rules, beadwork fashion changes all the time. Each new generation develops a particular style, including certain materials, colour placements and symbols that unite and identify them. In the spirit of creative competition, the girlfriends of a new age-set make new ornaments to ensure that their men outshine the previous age-set. Other changes in the fashion result from a shortage of beads of certain types or colours for trade reasons.
A good example is the blocking of the Suez Canal during the third Arab Israeli war in 1967. Rivalry between age-sets also sparks change. Competing age-sets have often chosen to incorporate symbols of adopted technology. For instance, the Iseuri age-set, which was circumcised in the 1950s and 1960s, chose the telegraph pole as their symbol, as a reference to the speed of communication between warriors and their girlfriends. The next major age-set, the Ilkitoip, elaborated on this theme by adding a large button eye on top of the telegraph pole to symbolise the swirling blue light of a police car.
Succeeding age-sets created ornaments with a helicopter rotor blade because helicopters are faster than police cars. Outside influences Tourists are often quite surprised and a little disappointed when they find out that Maasai beads are imported from Europe. They would like African beadwork to be “authentic”. And it’s true that some ornaments have more cultural meaning than others. Some are adapted to tourists’ preferences. For instance Maasai women started to use colours and designs they would not normally use in their own beadwork, just because tourists liked them.
And ornaments for tourists are often made of cheaper Chinese beads. Some items have such symbolic significance that they cannot easily be sold. An example is the Elekitatiet belt, which a woman makes for her daughter-in-law when she has delivered her first baby. Nowadays uncircumcised boys in the city wear beaded necklaces in Rastafari colours, and warriors buy beaded straps that give their watches a Maasai touch. So Maasai beadwork continues to be the result of the interaction between European and African cultures, and there is nothing isolated or timeless about it.
Rather than exotic, static and detached, it forms an ever changing, multi-cultural realm of exchange of materials and ideas between Africa and Europe. This article first appeared online at The Conversation. “It is my wish to build bridges between worlds, to show the oneness of all people; that not only our physical reality is connected, but that our hearts are moved by the same life, light, being, eternity, love. Perfection is a matter of perspective, and you are free to choose it.” Vanessa Wijngaarden is a doctor in social anthropology at the University of Johannesburg. She studied Political Science and Cultural Anthropology in Amsterdam, Netherlands, completing her doctorate at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. She has written the book Maasai Beadwork:European Beads with African Stories Available from her website www.vanessawijngaarden.wordpress.com She has had successful exhibitions in Europe of Maasai Beadwork and is currently looking for exhibiting spaces in East Africa.